The Nats are back

Those of you who have followed the Apostle Paul and set your mind on higher things may already be aware that the Washington Nationals returned to RFK Stadium tonight. Sure it was only an exhibition game, and sure they lost 9-6 to a team wearing uniforms that made them look like cheese puffs with racing stripes (the Baltimore Orioles) but baseball is back. And, regardless of the litiurgical season, that deserves an Alleluia.

More on the Bishop of Exeter

The Church Times has a solid account of the speech that the Bishop of Exeter gave to our House of Bishops earlier this month under the heading: ECUSA could wreck it all, envoy warns US bishops. Reading through the story, my mind stuck on one particular point which I had overlooked previously:

"Your process must command respect and a belief that your intention and desire is to do not just what is expedient but what is right."

The bishop has this exactly backward. As he frames the issue, the only way forward is for the majority of our bishops and deputies to vote for legislation that they would never support if the future of the Communion were not at stake. He is imploring us to allow expediency to trump conscience while professing to do the opposite.

If saving the Anglican Communion requires the Episcopal Church to throw gays and lesbians under the bus, as we say in the somewhat hyperbolic world of sports radio, then let's state that clearly and debate the matter in those terms. An unwillingness to do so indicates, at least to me, that we recognize that this is precisely what we are being asked to do, and that we find the prospect shameful, yet potentially necessary. Hence we take refuge in ambiguity, obfuscation, or, in the Bishop of Exeter's case, inversion.

His speech and some early commentary is here.

The Company we keep, part 1

We have received a flattering, not to mention flabbergasting invitation recently. The Central Intelligence Agency is holding a conference next month on "Cyber-influence" and asked us to participate. They are interested in the persuasive arts as practiced on the internet, and wanted to know more about some of the thinking that informs the diocesan Web site in general, and this blog in particular.

Perhaps one doesn't think of the diocese and the Company as natural allies, but the strategies that drive evangelism can easily be adapted to shaping the image of the US in other countries and cultures. The challenges of overcoming initial resistance, putting one's best foot forward, giving the Web visitor a reason to keep learning more about you, and then finally persuading them to change the way they think and act are similar to both enterprises. One hears a lot these days about "soft power." Internet evangelism is one way of deploying the soft power of God.

The conference is taking place at a time when I have a previous commitment, but we are sending a very knowledgeable representative, and I can't wait to hear about his experience.

Mark 10

Verses 11-12: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and maries another, she commits adultery."

This seems pretty clear teaching from the mouth of Jesus himself. Yet most Christian churches permit remarriage after divorce. And Paul, who I am gathering must have been familiar with Jesus' teaching in this regard, felt free to modify it to allow for divorce when it facilitated church membership. This raises a couple of questions: Is Jesus just expressing an ideal here, or is he laying down law? Why did Paul feel he had the right to take what, I think, has to be construed as a softer stance on the issue than Jesus did? Why do people who insist that same-sex intimacy is incompatible with Scripture not think that divorce is incompatible with Scripture? Some of the loudest voices raised against gays and lesbians in our church are by male leaders in second marriages.

And speaking of fairly explicit passages, verse 23: How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God." Is Jesus saying that the possession of wealth in the midst of scrarcity is an injustice, and the unjust will not enter heaven? Or is he saying that wealth is a distraction that keeps one from focusing on the Kingdom. Or both? One thing I think is clear, when he says, in verse 27 that nothing is impossible with God, it isn't meant as a free pass to every pious porker who clings to his riches while attesting to the power of Christ in his life. Yet those folks are about the hottest evangelists in the game right now. And you never hear anybody whining about their orthodoxy.

If, like many Episcopalians, you are used to having some questionably interpreted passages from Scripture used as proof that you are not following the true faith, it makes you wonder why those who wield the Bible like a billy club pay so little attention to what seem to be clear teachings on divorce and on the accumulation of wealth.

Moving Toward Columbus -- by Katie Sherrod

This ray of reason and reassurance comes to us from Katie Sherrod a longtime member of the Episcopal Women's Caucus, and of the Via Media group in the Diocese of Forth Worth.

I have been pondering the concept of productive waiting.

It is a concept with which most women will be familiar. God knows women and our male allies working for change in our church have had to learn patient and productive waiting or go mad in the process. We have learned that productive waiting is as action-filled a process as it is a reflective one. It allows us time to think before we act, an increasing rarity in these days of instantaneous Internet hyperbole.

Our church is now moving through what many describe as a time of turmoil. There are those who are working hard to keep things as stirred up as possible in the wake of the prophetic actions of General Convention 2003. One tool they are using to great effect is the Windsor Report. They make loud and repeated demands that The Episcopal Church "submit" to it and use disinformation to stir up as much anxiety as possible.

It is at times like these that The Women's Caucus' gift of being a calm presence is most valuable. This has been especially true at recent General Conventions, when the hysteria of a few privileged white males threatened to infect usually calmer folks.

So how to turn the remaining time until General Convention 2006 into a time of productive waiting instead of a time of anxiety, name-calling and fear? Information is our best weapon against the fog of words being put out by those threatening schism.

Here are facts some are trying mightily to obscure:

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Christian leaders issue statement on House budget

From Episcopal News Service:

Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold joined the leaders of four other Christian denominations today in a statement calling on members of the House Budget Committee to "eliminate the inequities in its federal budget and instead act to pass a budget that meets the moral test of serving ‘the common good.’"

The statement, written in the context of the Lenten season, examines the President’s FY ‘07 federal budget proposal which caps annual spending, resulting in $212 billion in cuts over five years in non-defense related discretionary spending, according to the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations in Washington.

This is the second year in a row that the leaders of the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society, and United Church of Christ have called on Congress to reject a federal budget that cuts programs that serve the working poor, children and the elderly.

Under the President’s FY ‘07 budget, programs that are at risk for substantial cuts include Food Stamps, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, Commodity Supplemental Food Program, Pell Grants, Child Care, International HIV/AIDS funding, and environmental protection.

Earlier this month the Senate rejected some of President Bush’s proposed cuts in domestic discretionary spending, including cuts to Medicare. The House Committee on the Budget begins its work with a number of moderate Republican members of Congress calling on the committee to adopt a similar approach to the Senate.

All members of the House Budget Committee received the leaders’statement in advance of today’s session.

The text of the statement follows:

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Mark 9

Getting back to our Lenten reading...

In the first verse Jesus says there are people listening to him who "will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God has come with power." Some interpreters have taken this as evidence that Jesus thought he was living in an end time. If he did think so, he was wrong. Could Jesus make mistakes? Or is the Kingdom of God a state of being or state of mind that people could indeed "taste" in their lifetimes? Or is something else going on here?

We move from this verse to the Transfiguration. An interesting side note here. Verse 2 begins with the words "six days later." Chronological precision is not exactly rife in the New Testament. Wonder what is up with this?

I have nothing to say about the Transfiguration that you haven't heard before. The passage definitely establishes Peter and the others as first among the apostles. And it establishes Jesus in a noble Jewish line of succession. In some ways, it makes you wonder how Peter and the others could ever have entertained doubt again.

I have never actually been able to come up with a satisfying image of what the transfigured Jesus looked like. And as I was thinking about this, I did a little Web trolling and found that this is one of the least frequently depicted scenes in the life of Christ. Witnessing the Transfiguration must have been a staggering visual experience. Yet, it has inspired comparatively little art. Maybe it is beyond our imagining. Maybe any attempt to portray it would have seemed immediately cliched.

In this chapter we also get more of Mark's fascination with Jesus' relationship with and knowledge of demons. I get a kick out of Jesus saying "This kind can come out only through prayer." As though he were reflecting on a long medical career and giving the apostles a useful craftsman's tip. My Oxford Annotated contains a footnote that says: Failure is attributed to a wrong attitude. The disciple must speak from faith, not from argument." Now, that last sentence is very good advice, but in this context, it seems like an attempt to read a moral into a story that is too unusual to support one.

Verses 42-48, if your eye offends you, pluck it out, etc. are generally interpreted metaphorically, and I don't quarrel with that. I don't think you should pluck your eyes out. But sometimes I think we read the metaphor too broadly. Jesus isn't just saying stay away from stuff that might jeopardize your salvation. He is saying cut yourself off from things you previously considered essential to your well being if it gets in the way of your relationship with God. I am trying to think about whether I have ever done that, or felt I had to. There is a bit of a conundrum here. Ideally, you would not make something an essential part of your life if you thought it got in the way of your relationship with God. At least not knowingly. It seems Jesus is asking for some fairly intesne self-scrutiny, a measuring of every element in your life against the standard of whether it helps or hinders your relationship with God.

"A political philosophy masquerading as gospel"

The Rev Michael Livingston, president of the National Council of Christian Churches gave a bracing address to the NCCC's Communications Commission this week. Here are two nuggets that caught my eye:

"Mainline Protestant and Orthodox churches have been pounded into irrelevancy by the media machine of a false religion; a political philosophy masquerading as gospel; an economic principle wrapped in religious rhetoric and painted red, white and blue. "

"Why do we know so much about Pat Robertson and so little about Mark Hanson (Frank Griswold's Lutheran counterpart)? He’s thoughtful, articulate, personable, (photogenic); he’s a great church leader with a compelling personal story. Isn’t what the Lutherans are doing in the world at least as worthy of public exposure as what Pat thinks about Islam? That’s a rhetorical question. What kind of news information outfit reports the one and not the other? Have we no ability to influence this insanity?"

Cry Babies for Christ

Turns out that even though the President of the United States is an evangelical Christian, and the religious right exerts unprecedented influence on American politics, conservative Christians are actually being persecuted. So said a gathering of some of the most comfortable human beings on the face of the planet this week in Washington. The Washington Post has the story.

It is ironic that conservatives, who once made their political bread and butter by charging liberals with promoting a class of victims, now make their bread and butter the same way. At some point, shouldn't the rest of us tell these power mongers to call themselves something other than Christians? They aren't the only ones who have to use that name, and they are devaluing its currency.

What happened at the House of Bishops meeting, 2

On March 22, Michael Langrish, Bishop of Exeter, representing the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a significant (I think) speech to our House of Bishops. You can read the whole thing by clicking at the bottom of this entry, but I wanted to point out one section that I think has been overlooked in the commentary I have read on other blogs so far..

Bishop Langrish spoke after a day or so after a special panel assembled by Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold gave the House a preview of some possible resolutions regarding the Windsor Report that will be submitted to General Convention when it meets in June. Our task at General Convention is to determine how we are to respond to the unrest in much of the rest of the Communion over our decision to consecrate a non-celibate gay man as a bishop, and over our decision to state that the blessing of same-sex relationships was part of the "common life" of our Church.

To employ the most reductive analysis for the sake of brevity, the question is whether we will a) effect a moratorium on the consecration of gay bishops and b) prohibit the blessing of same-sex relationships. Or, whether we will come close enough to doing those things to persaude a majority of the provinces in the Communion to remain in relationship with us.

To put this even more reductively, are we going to get kicked out of the Communion if we don't backtrack on gay issues or not?

While there is much in Langrish's remarks that indicate we will be in serious trouble if we don't do everything the Windsor Report asks, there is also this:

"I suppose one of the major challenges for the Episcopal Church now has to do with whether there are enough of you to stand on broadly the same ground, holding a range of opinions on the issue of Lambeth 1.10 but firm in carrying forward the Windsor vision of a strengthened and enabling communion life. This, I believe, is the key question rather than questions (unhelpful questions I think) about whether the Episcopal Church will either be pushed out of Communion or consciously walk away. Let's be clear: On the one hand no one can force another Province or Diocese either to go or remain. We are not that kind of Church. Yet equally, no Diocese or Province can enforce its own continued membership simply or largely on its own terms. There has to be engagement. There is no communion without a shared vision of life in communion (at least that is how I understand Windsor).

So it does seem to me, as I listen to those other parts of the Communion that I know best, that any further consecration of those in a same sex relationship; any authorisation of any person to undertake same sex blessings; any stated intention not to seriously engage with The Windsor Report -- will be read very widely as a declaration not to stay with the Communion as it is, or as the Windsor Report has articulated a vision, particularly in sections A and B, of how it wishes to be. Having said that, I do believe that I have heard in this house this week, by and large, a desire for shared life in communion and ongoing engagement with others in just what this must involve."

Now what do you make of the italicized parts? I would like to think it means that he members of the Anglican Communion, like the members of a family, are stuck with each other, whatever the quality of their relationships at any given moment. This would mean that the issue before us is how well we are going to get along and not, whether one province or another is going to be banished into the darkness. But I am not sure that those who have made their careers and livings trying to get the Episcopal Church ejected from the Communion can live with this. And I am not sure the Church which Bishop Langrish represented at the meeitng of our House of Bishops has the backbone to tell them no.

The full speech begins here:

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Ad envy

The United Church of Christ does a very nice job devising ad campaigns that are provocative enough to garner them free media as well. Here is their latest. I think they understand their potential audience much better than we Episcopalians do, and as a result, they are better at reaching them.

What happened at the House of Bishops meeting, I

Those of you who follow the internal politics of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion may be aware that the Church's House of Bishops met last week, and that our relationship with the rest of the Communion was near the top of the agenda. For some reason, the Church leadership always assumes that it is best if the rest of the Church knows as little as possible about what transpires at these meetings. But, almost invariably, much of what transpires leaks out in a form that fans the very anxiety that church leaders were hoping to bank.

It comes as almost no surprise then that a member of the House, Bishop Kirk Smith of Arizona, has written an account of the meeting that, perhaps against his wishes, is now circulating on the internet. It gives us the fullest sense we have had of how the House of Bishops hopes to handle the issues of same-sex blessings and the consecration of future gay and lesbian candidates for the episcopacy.

So far, within my own limited feedback loop, it has had the effect of engendering a type of discussion I had not heard previously. A conversation in which the word "sellout" is being used, in which resistance to the bishops' by the House of Deputies is being discussed, and in which the pros and cons of getting out of Dodge (leaving the Anglican Communion) are being evaluated. I don't know that anything will come of these conversations, but until this week, I wasn't even hearing this kind of talk, and that strikes me as significant. My hunch is that this is not what Bishop Smith intended.

Here is his report:

Sitting in the airport, waiting to catch a plane back to Phoenix from the North Carolina House of Bishops meeting gives me a chance to add my own unofficial “Word to the Church” as an introduction to the official published document, which I have included below in case you have not already seen it. There were several large and important issues we dealt with at this meeting. We were very much aware that many in our own country, not to mention the wider Anglican Communion, were waiting to see how we would react to the Windsor Report on the eve of our June General Convention. You will note the mention, in the “Word to the Church” document, of the Special Commission on the Anglican Communion. Although this Commission did not give us a written report (that will be published in a few weeks), it did outline several recommendations, which will take the form of resolutions at General Convention. From my perspective, these resolutions represent an endorsement of the Windsor Report and express a clear desire not to do anything that would further jeopardize our standing with the rest of the Communion. The resolutions, which I also expect will pass in June, I would sum up as follows nothing is official at this point:

Click for the rest.

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A tip top sermon

Regular visitors will remember that a week or so ago, in reference to Mark 8, I mentioned that the "feeding miracles" were the textual fodder for some of the best sermons I have ever heard. So, a few days later, I walked into church, heard John's account of a feeding miracle, and sure enough, it was followed by one of the best sermons I have ever heard.

And here it is, courtesy of the preacher, the Rev. Martin L. Smith of St. Columba's in northwest DC:

I taught myself to read during daycare at my grandmother’s using the only reading matter available—her weekly women’s magazines. My grandfather used to read aloud in a satirical tone extracts from the personal advice columns, the equivalent of Dear Abby. He called them “the dirty bits” because they contained veiled allusions to sexual problems. This greatly intrigued me at age four, so I turned to the back of the magazines and laboriously spelled word by word what “Evelyn Home” or “Angela Gray” had to say to help the women who had written to them deal with their painful issues, conflicts, dreams, aspirations, and fears—and above all how to deal with men, the biggest problem of all, it seemed. Most of it was veiled in an adult code I couldn’t crack, but that didn’t deter me in the least.

So for me, reading and writing were for ever after indissolubly linked with the possibility of reaching out to people struggling with their unhappiness and seeking ways to negotiate their relationships. And I was precociously alerted to undercurrents of gender conflict that are constantly pulling all of us this way and that. That’s why many passages from scripture only really come alive for me when I can uncover the gender tensions that are just below the surface. Let me demonstrate. The story of the feeding of the five thousand is electrically charged with high voltage tension about ‘gender agendas.’ What do women really want? What do men really want?

First of all, I must warn you there is a deliberate mistranslation in today’s gospel reading which arises from our present-day nervousness about gender inclusiveness. “So they sat down, about five thousand in all.” But the Greek text says, “So the males sat down, about five thousand in all.” That sounded “exclusive”, so the translators cheated and changed it to the generic “they”—defying the hard fact that all four gospels insist that this story concerns five thousand men. Mark says so directly. Matthew underscores it with an expression that means women and children were off the scene. This is a gender-divided occasion.

Why did five thousand able-bodied males converge on Jesus when he had sailed over the Sea of Tiberias with the twelve into the uninhabited hill country? Well, let’s see what this would look like to Roman intelligence officers, if they could have done an aerial reconnaissance. First, they would have been very aware that the feast of the Passover was near in which Jews celebrated their liberation from Egyptian oppressors. Jewish insurgents often launched their rebellions just before Passover when feelings were running especially high about the shame and misery of being under pagan occupation. Secondly, the gathering was in the wilderness, which, as we know from the Jewish historian Josephus, was the traditional mustering place for rebels, out of range of military surveillance.

Click for more. And think about printing it out. You deserve the chance to read it at your leisure.

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WERKing in New Orleans

The April issue of the Window is now online. If you would like to get involved in our relief work in New Orleans, have a look at this story, and visit this site.

Why I am an ecumenical Episcopalian

Here is Bowie Snodgrass' column from the January issue of Washington Window.

My dad believes there is one water table, reached by many wells. We must each choose a well, he says - a way to the water. The deeper we go, the more we understand that we all drink from the same source.

Further proving Newton's theory of gravity, this apple didn't fall far from the tree.

I spent my undergraduate and seminary years studying how religions both reflect and affect culture - the webs of meaning that constitute our social norms. To gain perspective, I lived abroad, and to find my faith, I walked a pilgrim's path. As an adult, I have returned to drink from the Episcopal well, knowing my way will always be ecumenical - worldwide and cooperative.

'Ecumenical' comes from the Greek oikumene, meaning 'the inhabited earth' (oikos, meaning 'home,' is also the root for 'economy' and 'ecology'). The specifics and structures of our cultures shape how we live in the world - how we inhabit this earth. I propose that ecumenism (as a principle and practice) allows us to celebrate the varieties of our Christian traditions, to critique mainstream cultural practices, and to consider what meaning we might find if we lift off the layers of culture that cover what lies beneath.

Celebration
The ecumenical movement invites us to celebrate the rich diversity of Christian traditions. Anglican and Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant, America's historic black churches, the practice of Liberation Theologies - the list goes on and on.

Merton found that monastics across cultures had much in common. Like the disciples on Pentecost, we too can encounter Christ in our neighbor, understanding beyond words, finding that what we share in faith trumps that which divides us.

...
There's more....

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The Annunciation

Tomorrow is the feast of the Annunciation. We have a beautiful audio/visual meditation on The Magnificat on our spirituality site. You will find it on the lower righthand corner of the page. Make sure you have turned your sound on for the full effect.

(This prayer, also refered to as the Song of Mary, is perhaps more appropriate for the feast of the Visitation on May 31, but it is a favorite of mine, and I trot it out whenever possible.)

I forget where I first read a wonderful riff on the Annunciation suggesting that Gabriel had been traveling the world for eternity just looking for someone who would say yes, and Mary was the first person he found.

Marian feasts days tend to get people, myself included, feeling warm and fuzzy, which is why it is worth remembering that the Magnificat is about deliverance from worldly oppressors. Here are verses 51-53 from the New Revised Standard Version:

"He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."

This is a pugnacious prayer of vindication, and the implications for our current economic situation are, to me, unmistakable. We foster and sustain inequality, and, as a result, we live under God's judgment. This is a sin we need to repent.

There are stables full of Christian apologists for runaway capitalism at think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. I nourish the faint hope that these verses make them uncomfortable.

Update: Tobias Haller has a fine poem called "Annunciation and Response" on his site.

Human rights in Nigeria. And Peter Akinola says "Amen."

Some of you may be clinging to an idea advanced by Canon Akintunde Popoola of the Church of Nigeria in the credulous pages of The Living Church magazine. He asserts that legislation currently under consideration in Nigeria doesn't really infringe gay people's rights of speech, assembly and association all that much.

Or, you may be in an argument with someone who believes, as Bishop Robert Duncan of the Anglican Communion Network, Canon Martyn Minns of the American Anglican Council or Faith McDonald of the Institute on Religion and Democracy do that pointing out that the Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria supports legislation that would violate human rights is actually worse than supporting the violation of those rights.

Whatever the case, I urge you to check out this letter from 16 human rights organizations--including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International--urging Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to withdraw what the groups characterize as a "draconian" measure that not only "contravenes international law" but violates the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which "ensure(s) rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly."

The bill also undermines Nigeria’s struggle to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, as a story from Human Rights Watch points out.

So to restate a recurring theme: It is okay for the Anglican Church of Nigeria, led by Archbishop Peter Akinola, to support what a bevy of human rights organizations call a "draconian measure" that "will only intensify prejudice and discrimination based on sexual orientation." As long as they don’t consecrate any gay bishops, their membership in the Anglican Communion is apparently safe. Because, you see, there is "consensus" within the Communion that gay bishops are a dodgy initiative that must be resisted until an overwhelming majority of the Communion is on board. Whereas advocating the imprisonment of gay people who kiss in public is not sufficient cause for reexamining the nature of that consensus.

Speaking unofficially: it is beginning to look as though the Communion faces less danger from its supposed inability to say "no" to theological innovations, than from its manifest unwillingness to say "no" to what the non-Anglican world recognizes as bigotry.

(tip of the hat to politicalspaghetti.blogspot.com for spotting this first.)

When Would Jesus Bolt?

The invaluable Amy Sullivan has a piece in the current issue of the almost equally invaluable Washington Monthly about "the advance guard of evangelicals leaving the GOP." It focuses on the battle over an elective course in Bible studies in Alabama's public high schools. The twist is that the bill was sponsored by Democrats and opposed by Republicans.

Sullivan explains:

The holy skirmish down in Alabama, with its “GOP blocks votes on Bible class bill” headlines, may seem like just a one-time, up-is-down, oddity. But it's really the frontline of a larger war to keep Democrats from appealing to more moderate evangelical voters. American politics is so closely divided that if a political party peels off a few percentage points of a single big constituency, it can change the entire electoral map. ....

Democrats could ... poach a decisive percentage of the GOP's evangelical base. In the last election, evangelicals made up 26 percent of the electorate, and 78 percent of them voted for Bush. That sounds like a fairly inviolate bloc. And, indeed, the conservative evangelicals for whom abortion and gay marriage are the deciding issues are unlikely to ever leave the Republican Party. But a substantial minority of evangelical voters—41 percent, according to a 2004 survey by political scientist John Green at the University of Akron—are more moderate on a host of issues ranging from the environment to public education to support for government spending on anti-poverty programs. Broadly speaking, these are the suburban, two-working-parents, kids-in-public-school, recycle-the-newspapers evangelicals. They may be pro-life, but it's in a Catholic, “seamless garment of life” kind of way. These moderates have largely remained in the Republican coalition because of its faith-friendly image. A targeted effort by the Democratic Party to appeal to them could produce victories in the short term: To win the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry needed just 59,300 additional votes in Ohio—that's four percent of the total evangelical vote in the state, or approximately 10 percent of Ohio's moderate evangelical voters. And if the Democratic Party changed its reputation on religion, the result could alter the electoral map in a more significant and permanent way.

Faith-based investing

At last, a faith-based program I can get excited about:

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Are investors losing their religion? No way. Just take a look at the number of dollars flowing into faith-based mutual funds.

According to fund research firm Morningstar, the value of assets held by faith-based funds has jumped nearly seven-fold since 2000 to $15.9 billion this year.

"In general, screened investing -- both religious and secular -- is getting more acceptable as investors have a greater desire to make investments that don't conflict with their core values," Morningstar analyst Bill Rocco said.

Religious funds use factors known as screens to cater to clients dedicated to their faith, but the funds range widely in their holdings and investment strategies.

There's more.

Mark 8(b)

So, as I was saying six days ago:

Two questions have always dogged my reading of the Gospels: What did Jesus know and when did he know it? And: What did the disciples know and when did they know it? These questions are born partly of a writer’s curiosity, a desire for more information about the consciousness and the emotional experience of the “characters.” But there is more at stake. Because, if Jesus “knew” everything that was going to happen to him, and verses 31-38 certainly argue that he did, then his suffering seems less profound. And the agony on the Mount of Olives and his cry of despair from the cross are difficult to make sense of. It is possible, maybe even likely—I haven’t reread the literature on this—that these verses are the efforts of early Christian apologists to create the impression that Jesus was all-knowing, and, therefore, always in control of his own fate. But if that is the case, the attempt creates more questions than it answers, for it gives us an invulnerable God who was never really at risk, but simply fulfilling his end of some barbaric bargain with his blood-lusting Father. I can’t make theological sense of that. So I am always distrustful of these passages in which Jesus speaks in such detail of what is about to befall him.

The question of the disciples’ consciousness arises in verse 29 when Peter makes his confession of faith. “You are the Messiah.” Peter makes this confession in all of the synoptic gospels. It confers on him the status as the first to believe. Yet his belief is in a Messiah of his own imaging as is clear in verse 33, when he attempts to talk Jesus off the deathward path. I have to admit that this is one instance (the story of Martha and Mary is another) when I am on the wrong side of the gospels. No matter how many times I read those stories, I “accept” rather than fully fathom their morals. Sure Peter has set his mind on human rather than on divine things. But he is human, bound by the specifics of his time, his place and his culture. He’s got no context in which to understand a messiah who not only fails to conquer, but dies trying. Despite his friendship with Jesus’, he is no more equipped than the rest of us to limn God’s intention. So I always wonder whether he deserves the rebuke that Jesus administers. And I wonder why the Church makes so much of Peter’s confession, when he is asserting faith in what amounts to a false perception of God.

Finally, I appreciate the nice linguistic reversals in verses 34-38. He who loses will save, and he who saves will lose. And I have no trouble fathoming what Jesus is saying here. But, again, this passage feels like an apologetic appendage, rather than eye witness testimony. Note that Jesus refers to the cross, which would seem to indicate not only that he knew he was going to die, but how, and at whose command (Rome’s.) This goes even further than the sort of knowledge he disclosed about his impending trials earlier in the chapter. The fact that no one remarks upon this seems odd to me.

I understand that theologically speaking, this section of Mark’s gospel, and similar passages in its synoptic sisters have great theological and ecclesiological importance. They were no doubt critical in first century apologetics. But that may well be the problem. To my eyes, Peter is too obviously a stand-in for those who cannot accept the plausibility of a crucified Messiah, and Jesus too obviously speaks the words that the author wrote for him. This kind of didacticism indicates an unwillingness to trust the reader with unadorned facts. And, as Mark does this so infrequently, it is both jarring and disillusioning.

Episcopal bishops oppose US House of Representatives' immigration reform bill

The bill isn't mentioned by name, but that is the gist of what follows:

Episcopal News Service
Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Care for undocumented immigrants affirmed; Bishops oppose legislation that would make humanitarian acts unlawful

[ENS, Hendersonville, N.C.] The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church on March 22 adopted a resolution "opposing legislation making humanitarian acts unlawful" regarding care and aid extended to "undocumented immigrants."

The full text of the resolution -- proposed by Bishops of Dioceses on the Mexican Border and moved by Bishop Kirk Smith of Arizona -- follows.

Opposing legislation making humanitarian acts unlawful

RESOLVED, that the House of Bishops, meeting at Kanuga, March 17-22, 2006, reaffirming the action of Executive Council, meeting in Philadelphia, March 6-9, 2006, declares its strong opposition to any legislation that would make it unlawful for faith-based or humanitarian organizations to act to relieve the suffering of undocumented immigrants in response to the Gospel mandate to serve the least among us and our Baptismal covenant to seek and serve Christ in all persons;

AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the House of Bishops calls upon the people of the Episcopal Church to act on their Baptismal covenant without regard to such unjust legislation.

EXPLANATION: The Episcopal Church has a long tradition of advocating for the just and humane treatment of immigrants and refugees. In the current immigration debate, there is concern that attempts to change the U.S. immigration system could infringe upon the rights and obligations of religious and humanitarian organizations to extend support and assistance to those who come to them for help. The Gospel mandate to serve the least among us and the Baptismal covenant of the Church to seek and serve Christ in all persons are imperatives that call us to resist legislation that would make unlawful deeds of compassion done in the name of our faith. The Episcopal Church, therefore, identifies with expressions of other faith-based bodied who have expressed opposition to proposed legislation that would inhibit the ability of churches, their members and agencies to relieve the suffering of those whom they are called to serve.

Meanwhile, Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles, who has said that his diocese will disobey the House immigration bill if it becomes law, defends his position in The New York Times.

Choosing a bishop in California

As you may know, one of the five candidates in the May 6 episcopal election in the Diocese of California (which serves the Bay Area) is a gay man who lives with his male partner, and another is a lesbian who lives with a female partner.

(And a third is our diocese's own Eugene Sutton, canon pastor at Washington National Cathedral whose wife Sonya Subbayya Sutton is the fabulous director of parish music ministries at St. Alban's parish. But I digress.)

It has been suggested, plausibly, I think, that choosing to consecrate a second gay bishop, while the Anglican Communion is still in turmoil over the consecration of our first gay bishop, could cost the Episcopal Church is place in the Communion.

Here is what Tobais S. Haller has to say about this prospect:

"Let me be frank. It is certainly true that out gay and lesbian bishops are a stumbling block to some Anglicans. The election of another such bishop may indeed lead to some of the provinces of the Anglican Communion severing their ties with the Episcopal Church (how many in addition to those who have already done so remains to be seen.) That would be their choice. I do not believe “the Communion” is going to vote us off the island in this case, as I do not feel that a majority of provinces feel that strongly about the matter; and if I am mistaken, and they do, it will still be their choice to do so. It would not be the first time that a part of the Body has suffered exclusion because it did what it thought was right.

But as to stumbling blocks: The cross was a stumbling block to Jews and a folly to Greeks. Jesus’ “lifestyle” was a scandal (that is, a stumbling block) to his contemporaries, shocked and appalled as they were at his fellowship with sinners — eating with them, and even letting them touch him. This led to deep and serious divisions in the religious community of his day; only a small minority of whom came eventually to join his movement. So Jesus did not come to bring unity, at least not at first, and certainly not as expected — but division. There had to be, as Saint Paul said later (1 Cor 11:19), a certain amount of partisan division and factions (Paul used the word heresy) so that what was truly genuine might be made manifest.

For true unity does not emerge from compromise, but crucifixion. The grain of wheat does not grow unless it perishes. It is through the Paschal mystery, and only thus, that the unity of the church emerges and is preserved."

You can read it all here.

As regular visitors know, I admire Tobias greatly, but my mind is not as clear on this as is his. I would be interested in hearing other people's thoughts.

The Guardian interviews the Archbishop of Canterbury

Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian has conducted a lengthy interview with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. I haven't read it all yet. The Guardian's own story on the interview leads with Williams' opposition to teaching creationism in schools.

The piece does include the following:

Speaking of the church's situation in Africa, the archbishop issued snubs to two of the region's archbishops. He described the position in central Africa, where Archbishop Bernard Malango has just absolved without trial Bishop Norbert Kunonga of Harare, accused by his parishioners of incitement to murder, as "dismal and deeply problematic" .

Dr Williams also criticised Archbishop Peter Akinola, leader of the largest single national church in the Anglican communion, in Nigeria, who has been accused of encouraging violence against Muslims during recent rioting by warning that Christian youth could retaliate against them. Dr Williams claimed the African primate had not made himself sufficiently clear: "He did not mean to stir up the violence ... I think he meant to issue a warning which certainly has been taken as a threat, an act of provocation."

Speaking of the gay debate which threatens to split the church, Dr Williams insisted he would continue to try to hold the communion together. "I can only say that I think I have got to try ... For us to break apart in an atmosphere of deep mistrust, fierce recrimination and mutual misunderstanding is really not going to be in anybody's good in the long run." But he accepted there might come a moment where the Anglican Communion says "we can't continue, we can't continue with this".

And Rusbridger's piece on the interview is here. It includes this tart passage about liberals who feel "dismayed by his apparent retreat in the face of ferocious fire from evangelicals and theological conservatives, most notably over the issue of gay priests. The archbishop's defenders counter by blaming liberals for misreading the man who was catapulted from the relative obscurity of Monmouth to the full panoply of Canterbury three years ago. While certainly a social liberal, they say, Williams has always been a "radical traditionalist" in theological terms. This cuts only so much ice with some of his otherwise faithful flock. "The question you should ask him, but you can't," said one frustrated observer, "is, why should anyone care what his beliefs are if he's never going to stand up for them?"

Relative transgressions

Here is the second in a series of columns by Bowie Snodgrass, content editor of The Episcopal Church's Web site and co-convener of the 20/30 Connection at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. Bowie's column appears every other month in our diocesan paper the Washington Window.

The relativity of modern morality

By Bowie Snodgrass
Washington Window
Vol. 73, No. 11, November 2005

Last November was an election, which people said was about morality, but then decided wasn't. In that brief time, between the flip and the flop, I began to think about the relativity of morality, particularly from generation to generation.

In months of conversations with friends, I've come up with a little list of behaviors that fall fairly clearly on two sides of a line, as seen by those of us who grew up with DARE, AIDS and divorce, watching “After School Specials” and “School House Rocks,” maybe going to church sometimes, using computers a lot, and loving today's multi-cultural America.

Keep in mind that some folks my age might see all these behaviors as "bad" and others might believe that all "bads" are relative. Oscar Wilde said, "Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace." So here we go: My personal guide to where young people - or at least the ones I know - stand now, and where we draw that line.

Trying a joint at a party… or driving home drunk?
Dare I say that D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) was less convincing than M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving)? M.A.D.D. came up with the brilliant slogan "Friends Don't Let Friends Drink and Drive." And it worked. We don't. It's now de rigueur to have a D.D. (designated driver), which is more than I can say for my parents' and grandparents' generations.

Pot can be a problem, but a lot of folks have tried it, and it's only one drug to be questioned in today's pantheon of popularly proscribed pharmaceuticals, abused over-the-counter products, illegal killers (e.g. heroin, ecstasy, crystal meth), and legal ones (e.g. cigarettes and alcohol).

Piracy… or plagiarism?
No, I'm not talking about swashbuckling maritime marauders. I'm talking about ordinary downloading bootleggers - like you and me. Artists should be valued and fairly compensated, but media and technology are forever changing our culture. Plus, we like to share good stuff with our friends.

Plagiarism, however, is bad stuff. I had a friend in college whose paper was stolen by someone at the end of freshman year and handed in as the thief's own work. My friend had the drafts to prove the paper was hers, but the hearings she was forced to go through became a trial and ruined her sophomore year.

Being a little bit chubby… being a little bit bulimic?
Body weight isn't really a moral issue, but American puts a lot of social weight on how much we weigh, a trend that escalated in the second half of the 20th century.

I think I first learned about bulimia and anorexia from “After School Specials” and health class. Then I went to Vassar and learned a whole lot more. I knew some beautiful, brilliant and kind women who were slowly wasting away. It's heartbreaking to watch.

On the other hand, I'm so glad that in the 2000s "Baby Got Back!" is winning out over "baby, do these jeans make my butt look too big?" We're all made in God's image and there's plenty of religious art portraying people who are bigger than skinny!

Living together before marriage … or sleeping with someone who's married?
Thirty, 40, and 50 years ago, the former was considered scandalous. Today, I've even heard of some priests who recommend that young people live together before marriage. Whether or not you agree, it's happening all the time. Maybe people are getting married less or later, but then again, half our parents got divorced.

On the other side of the line, we're not likely to try having an "open marriage" and we know (from life and TV) that affairs can only lead to hurt and trouble. There are good reasons infidelity breaks a commandment.

Having gay sex… or having unprotected sex with a stranger?
Homosexuality is just not a big deal for more and more young people today. Most of us believe LGBT folk should have the right to live and love openly and honestly, and that these rights are justice issues.

However, I bet anyone who tells a friend that she or he had unsafe sex with a stranger will get a talking to - or at least a look. Many of us knew all about AIDS, and how to prevent it, well before our first sexual encounters. HIV has been around since before some of us were born.

Morals could be considered a meta-level of our consciousness, being able to see beyond the moment. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we just can't. That's what family and friends are for. Bible stories and the Holy Spirit help guide us too.

Knowing where our lines fall helps us know what we value and who we are. But drawing moral lines can be a delicate business. Someone once told me: "Whenever you draw a line in the sand, Jesus is on the other side of that line." Hip-hop star Kanye West says that Jesus walks with the "hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers, even the strippers." This is the love Christ taught us. Who do you walk with? Who's walked with you?

Bowie can be reached at bowiesnodgrass@gmail.com.

Mark 8a: What's the best sermon you've ever heard?

The first half of this chapter contains the second "feeding miracle." The feeding miracles have occasioned some of the best sermons I have ever heard, so I thought I'd pose the question up in the headline to keep us busy over the weekend.

The first terrific feeding miracle sermon I heard was given by a young priest who had worked at the same summer camp where I'd been a counselor. He spoke of the surprising reality that when you broke your self up and passed your self around, there was somehow more of you when you pulled yourself back together again. It was an exhortation to a life of generous service, although delivered in a laid back unexhortative kind of way.

The second terrific sermon on this passage was not one I heard, but one I heard about. It related what I am told was a popular interpretation of the feeding miracle in African-American pulpits, although one I hadn't previously heard. The preacher said that what happened when it became clear that Jesus and his disciples were willing to give away the only food they had for the sake of the crowd, everybody else felt moved to give as well. So, as the food came around, instead of taking something out of the basket, people put some of what they had been saving for themselves in.

To see the theme of this passage rendered with great cinematic power, just slip It's a Wonderful Life into the DVD player. The last scene, in which George Bailey's friends arrive with their small contributions to deliver him from ruin, is my favorite few minutes in the history of film.

Bernard Malango's strong sense of justice

Archbishop Bernard Malango is one of the louder voices in the chorus calling for the Epsicopal Church to be expelled from the Anglican Communion. The Church Times in England has a good story today about Malango's continued attempts to shield Bishop Nolbert Kuonga, ally of Robert Mugabee, and supporter of his brutality, from facing a church trial. An earlier story gives background for people who are new to the issue.

But the gist, as put forward by Stephen Bates in a recent column for the Church of England Newspaper, that is linked to earlier on the blog is as follows:

"The list of 38 charges against the good bishop, who is a crony of Robert Mugabe, brought against him by his own black parishioners, include little matters such as incitement to murder, intimidation, ignoring church law, mishandling funds and proselytising for Zanu PF from the pulpit. He has also occupied a farm and evicted 40 families from a local village. A couple of months ago he even licensed the acting vice-president of Zimbabwe Joseph Msika, a man on record as saying that whites are not human beings, to act as a deacon of the church."

Nothing quite as henous as consecrating a gay man in a monogamous relationship to be a bishop after he had been elected by the people of his diocese, and confirmed by the General Convention. So his invitation to the next Lameth Conference is not in doubt. Unlike those of Gene Robinson and the bishops who participated in his consecration.

Peter Akinola is never wrong (and when he is, it is rude to say so.)

As you may remember, Bishop Chane wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post a couple of weeks ago criticizing Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola for his support of a law that would violate three articles of the United Nation's Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

Since that time, Akinola's allies in the Episcopal Church have been in a dither attempting to extricate themselves from the difficult situation in which he has put them. The Living Church, a right-leaning church publication (which, I will hastily concede, publishes some pretty good stuff) advanced the novel argument that while Akinola's spokesman placed the Church squarely behind the bill in an interview with Voice of America in January, his statements didn't really indicate that the archbishop himself supported the bill. (Except that shortly thereafter the Church of Nigeria endorsed the bill on its Web site. But maybe the archbishop didn't know about that either.)

The LC also disputed Bishop Chane's interpretation of the bill. It did so by relying--at least as far the story indicates--on the legal analysis of the archbishop's spokesman. This is akin to using me as your only quoted source in an article disputing the interpretation of a bill before the U. S. Congress. I'd be flattered, of course, but your editor would suggest you make a few more phone calls.

We've brought this press release from those crazy lefties at the U. S. State Department to the attention of the Living Church, but it did to figure in the story that appeared on their Web site today.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Canon Martyn Minns, of Truro Church in Fairfax, Va., and Bishop Robert Duncan, moderator of the Anglican Communion Network have released statements that ignore the thrust of Bishop Chane's piece:

"Our global community has certainly achieved no consensus on the issue of same-sex marriage or the related issues of civil unions.

But the Nigerian law has crossed the line in several important respects. Its most outrageous provision deals not with marriage but with "same-sex relationships" and prohibits essentially any public or private activity in any way related to homosexuality. It reads in part: "Publicity, procession and public show of same sex amorous relationship through the electronic or print media physically, directly, indirectly or otherwise are prohibited in Nigeria."

Any person involved in the "sustenance, procession or meetings, publicity and public show of same sex amorous relationship directly or indirectly" is subject to five years' imprisonment."

Canon Minns' parish even posts on its homepage a letter from All Saints, Chevy Chase, one of the two Network parishes in our diocese. Perhaps naively, the bishop assumes that private correspondence is, um, private. Interestingly, the letter posted on Truro's site isn't on All Saints' own home page. I urge you to give it a read, though. It gives you an amusing glimpse of not one, but three priests asking their bishop to provide them with material that is easily available on the internet (including links that were already available on this blog) and setting a deadline for his response.

Among the least edifying elements in these statements include the assertion that it is necessary to violate the human rights of gays and lesbians to some degree to keep the Isamic north of Nigeria from violating them to a greater degree. This might be a plausible argument if Archbishop Akinola had never previously opened his mouth on the subject of homosexuality, or if there was any indication that the Church worked to soften a previous version of the bill.

The attempts to garner sympathy for the archbishop because of the recent sectarian violence in his country would be more compelling if the archbishop's own statement warning Muslims that they did not hold a "monopoly on violence" were not widely seen as having exacerbated existing tensions.

In closing his statement, Canon Minns wrtes: "We are passing through trying times in our church. My hope is that we can continue to maintain respect for one another in the midst of our differences. In that regard Bishop Chane’s ad hominem attack is not a helpful contribution."

As means of demonstrating my respect, I invite Canon Minns to take another look at the bishop's op-ed piece and underline all of the ad hominem comments. I'll contribute $50 to his church for every one he can find.

To see Minns' and Duncan's statements anaylzed in further detail, visit http://politicalspaghetti.blogspot.com/

Stations of the Cross online

If you are looking for online devotions to enrich your Lenten journey, have a look at the four sets of Stations of the Cross we feature in the Spirituality section of our Web site. We've included a link to a set of Stations for children. One caution, the Salvadoran Stations from the chapel at the University of Central America (a Jesuit college in San Salvador) are especially graphic. As I wrote in the introduction to this meditation: "They portray in unflinching detail, the torture visited upon Salvadorans by right wing death squads and the U. S. backed government during that country's civil war in the 1980s. These stations serve as a reminder that many people walk the way of the cross every day, denied justice and dignity as Christ was, by powerful political forces."

I find these images extremely moving, but my taste may not be yours.

Our (sort of) new columnist

Back in September, our diocesan newspaper, Washington Window , began running a bi-monthly column aimed a young adults. It is written by Bowie Snodgrass, who, among other appellations that can be found at the bottom of this entry, is the co-convener of the 20s/30s group at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. I had heard Bowie speak at the Episcopal Communicators conference last year in Salt Lake City, and knew right away that I wanted to get her voice in the paper. I am going to put one of her columns up every week for the next five or six weeks, and then once a month. So have a read. Bowie has promised to check in every now and then to respond to yout comments.


Seminary in the City
By Bowie Snodgrass
Washington Window
Vol. 73, No. 9, September 2005

My mid-20s were spent as a seminarian in a city. By day, I read the Bible in Greek and wrote papers about its relationship to modern pop culture. But by night, I still liked to get dressed up and go out on the town, entering the matrix of having a social life - as a single young lady - in NYC.

A staple of most initial encounters is the question: “So, what do you do?” While doctors often dodge this question anticipating requests for medical advice, and artists can be resentful of having to explain that something is just their “day job,” telling someone you’re a seminarian places you smack dab in the center of a strange modern struggle between sensuality, spirituality and society.

In my first year of seminary, I’d tell people I was a grad student. “Oh, what do you study?” “Religion.” “Cool… Where?” “Up by Columbia.” (Sufficiently vague? Evading the truth?) But by my third year, I’d take a deep breath, look them in the eye, say - “I’m doing a Master of Divinity at Union Theological Seminary” - and see where the conversation went.

Women sometimes asked if I was going to be a nun, rabbi or “priestess.” I’d wonder how my Jean Paul Gautier or Betsy Johnson dress suited these female religious roles. Sometimes guys - in an “arguing-as-an-attempt-at-flirting” approach - wanted to dispute the existence of God, citing philosophers like Feuerbach or Nietzsche. “Sorry,” I’d say. “I don’t believe God is contingent on human consciousness. Before all this was and after all this will be: God.” Then flick my hair over my shoulder and say, “But, I’d love another drink.”

Of course some people looked peaked at the very mention of anything concerning G-O-D. I usually just let them excuse themselves. Others wanted to tell you all about their own (or their granny’s) relationship with religion. Sometimes these talks were truly great. Other times, less so.

Various people wanted to quiz me on this or that “fact” of the Bible and, once in a while, they would know another Episcopal seminarian and the name game would begin. One guy bought me a drink and turned out to know one of my seminary classmates. I think he gave me his number and I never called.

I ran into occasional accusations of hypocrisy (As if partying and being Christian are mutually exclusive… “Hey, just doing what Jesus did.”); inane drunkisms (“Can you make this beer holy?”); the sex questions (“Can you have it?” “Sorry, not tonight and not with you”); and fears of proselytism (“Are you here handing out pamphlets?”).

Maybe these are just the extreme examples of reactions anyone gets when faith, prayer or God come up in conversation on a Saturday night. These are topics considered better saved for Sunday morning. Many of us try to avoid this conflict by keeping our faith out of our public and professional lives, even if it’s an important part of our personal world.

With religion so much in the American public eye, it can be hard to stand up as a Christian for fear of being tarred with the same brush as the puritans or fundamentalists. And sometimes that simple question - So what do you do? - is an intensely personal one that can leave you feeling alien and naked when all you want to do is chill out and enjoy the company of friends, old and new.

Being in party company - celebrating life and spending hours just talking with people -can be a good thing. Hanging out is a good time to not be “what you do.” The tensions I felt during seminary about being a person of faith in the world were fundamental steps in my journey of figuring out how I relate to other people and how to live in the world with God “always on my mind.”

Why is it weird that the “professionally moral” people let their hair down too? And must “spirituality and sensuality” evoke visions of New Age crystals or Christian controversy? Can’t a girl have both her Saturday night and her Sunday morning?

It’s our job - living in a multicultural, post-modern megalopolis - to keep life in perspective. How else can a 20-something seminarian in the city be social and sexy too?

“So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a woman under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany her in her work all the days of the life God has given her under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 8:15

Bowie Snodgrass is the Web Content Editor of www.episcopalchurch.org and www.comeandgrow.org She lives in New York City and is the co-convener of the 20/30 Connection at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. She can be reached at bowiesnodgrass@gmail.com

Mark 7

I have two questions about this chapter. The first is ideologically loaded, and the second is theologically loaded. The first:

In the space of seven verses (17-23) Jesus sets aside the dietary laws--a cornerstone of first century Jewish observance and identity. He does so after a disquisition about people who honor God by observing the letter of the law, but not its spirit. It seems to me that some interpreters, in explaining this passage, have embraced precisely the bonds from which Jesus tries to free us. They have said, well, yes, we can eat pork, and sure it is wrong to rely to much on ritualized observance as a means of grace, but we should assume no metaphorical intent on behalf of the author. This isn't a passage about the primacy of a pure heart, and it isn't an assertion that God understands us well enough to judge by intention and not by action. Nope, it is a passage about pork and lobsters that we may be able to plunder later to preach against the Mass.

Jesus sets aside the dietary laws, but in doing so he isn't suggesting that we set aside any of the Old Testament dicta that remain as essential to our worldview as those laws were to first century Jews. He'd never do that because... because...because we won't let him.

The second question: Jesus meets the Syrophoeecian woman and--disconcertingly--refuses to heal her child, saying--more or less--that his mission is to the Jews. She says, in effect, okay, but how about the leftovers?And he changes his mind. I can't emphasize enough how hard that passage hit me when I first came to understand it: JESUS CHANGES HIS MIND. He's God, no? He's right about everything. In advance. So how come he changes his mind after this brief exchange with a human being--a Gentile woman, or all incredible first century things. Mark doesn't explore this incident, he merely relates it, so we ae left to wonder: was there a change in the mind of God and, perhaps more importantly for present day Christians--in the mission of Christ that can be traced to the comments of this woman?

You tell me, eh?

Mark 6

Two things I can't get past in this chapter: v.5 says "and he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them."

It seems utter predictable that Jesus would be "dissed" in his hometown. They knew him "when." I remember when I was an intern at Newsday, the Long Island (and Queens!) newspaper, and I was sitting with one of the veteran writers and he was talking about a guy who had a part-time job covering high school sports. He said, "He has to get out of here. They are never going to realize how good he is until he leaves." I hate to admit it, but in that moment, I thought of this anecdote: A prophet without honor in his hometown, etc. I realize the moral scale is all wrong, but the dynamic is similar. In some ways, the people who watched you grow up know you better than anyone. But in other ways, their knowledge of your early life blinds them to what you have become. They perceive limits on your future that are derived from their understanding of your past.

Does it make you wonder how your own situation compromises your ability to hear the Good News? Does it make you wonder whether God holds it against you?

Then to verses 7-13. Jesus sends the twelve out in pairs with authority over unclean spirits. The continuing focus on unclean spirits deserves deeper inspection on another day. Mark seems to see the world as a place of spiritual combat which might seem Manichean to some readers—or might seem fair enough. But even to those who find it an accurate description, the nature of un-cleanliness might seem peculiar—so much a product of spirits and so little matter of choice.

This incident is one of several in the NT about which I wish I knew more. As death closes in on Jesus, one doesn’t get a sense of the 12 as a confident bunch who have participated in drawing the Kingdom near. Granted, they were about to lose the person who had made every wonderful thing in their lives seem possible, but … If you had gone on a mission, cast out demons, and participated in Christ’s wonder-working power, would you really collapse as completely as these men collapsed?

On a more academic note, these verses seem to steal the thunder of Pentecost. If you’ve already felt this sort of power, does the descent of the Holy Spirit come as such a surprise? Maybe so. Maybe it was all so fleeting that it was impossible to believe, like Peter walking on water for a step or two and then plunging in.

This is a rich chapter, and I am going to pass on the death of John and the loaves and the fishes, partly because I get another shot in a little while at the loaves and fishes.

Credibility Gap: Archbishops Akinola and Malango

While I've been away from the blog, Father Jake, Simon Sarmiento of Thinking Anglicans and Mark Harris have posted valuable updates on the troubling activities of Archbishop Peter Akinola, primate of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, leader of the movement to toss the Episcopal Church out of the Anglican Communion. (He has even founded a rival church in the US in October, 2004, but, thus-far, it has been almost invisible.)

Stephen Bates of the Guardian touches on similar issues in a column for the Church of England Newspaper, but touches, too, on what might most charitably be referred to as the erratic behavior of Archbishop Bernard Malango the primate of Central Africa who, like Akinola, is hot to get rid of the Episcopal Church.

Have a look at Bates' column, and ask yourself why the leaders of the Anglican Communion continue to behave as though the consecration of gay bishops is the most pressing moral concern before the Communion, and why the Episcopal Church's membership in the Communion should depend, in any way, on the good opinion of men who act in this fashion.

Mark 5

Let's see, where were we?

Jesus has crossed the Sea of Galilee and come to "the country of the Gerasenes." There he meets a man possessed by an unclean spirit whose name is Legion "for we are many." Jesus casts the spirit(s?) out into a herd of 2,000 swine, which promptly stampede over the edge of a cliff and drown in the sea. The swineherds run off and tell people what has happened, and they come out to find the man who had been possessed "Clothed and in his right mind...and they were afraid."

Mark and the other evangelists often use unbelieving observers as foils, but I must admit that in this instance I sympathize with the frightened people. It isn't clear that these people have heard of Jesus, his ministry of healing and his mastery over evil spirits. So their first encounter with him includes, as its dramatic high point, a massive stampede that ends up with 2,000 dead hogs floating in the sea. I like to believe that were I alive in Jesus time I might have been among those who would have responded to his teaching. (But, really, who can say this for certain?) In this case, though, I think the surpassing strangeness of the events described would have set my teeth on edge.

Dead waterlogged pigs to the left of us! Dead waterlogged pigs to the right of us! And that lunatic who haunts the tombs neatly turned out and speaking good sense. I realize I am dwelling on this to the exclusion of Jesus restoring “Legion” to his right mind—and I realize the story might be metaphoric—but this seems to me one of those passages that resists domestication. You can't easily explain why Jesus did what he did in the particular way that he did it. I understand that Jews regarded pigs as unclean and all that, but causing 2,000 of them to hurl themselves off a cliff still seems a bit gratuitous. I read this story and marvel at the cultural distance that separates us from Mark’s original audience, and the challenges we face in trying to make sense of what the evangelists are saying and what Jesus is doing.

back from blog break

I had to take a blog break last week to work on a research project. I hope to be offering much more regular updates this week. Any college basketball fans out there? I am a Syracuse alum, and went to the same high school in Scranton, Pa., as the Orange's star guard Gerry McNamara. Awfully proud of what he's accomplished in the last few days.

Here in DC we are gearing up for baseball season. Tom Boswell, a former colleague of mine at the Post, (and an Episcopal schools alum as I recall) has written a number of wonderful baseball books, but the one I like best is Why Time Begins on Opening Day. It is a terrific title, but, strictly speaking, not correct. If you play ball and are trying to get your 49-year-old body in shape to run bases, field grounders, etc., you've got to start before opening day or else you will be sucking wind just running out a ground ball. So I am sucking a lot of wind these days on the treadmill and in the streets of my neighborhood so that I won't be sucking wind come mid-April. And if you are involved in youth leagues, you've got to register the kids and recruit new coaches and schedule practices, etc., etc., etc.

In its way, getting ready for baseball season--my own and my kids'--deepens my sense of Lent as a season of mortification, preparation and renewal.

Mark 4: sowers and seeds

An acquaintance who farmed potatoes in upstate New York once said that he had a hard time focusing on what would seem to be the moral of this parable because he was distracted by the way in which the sower sowed. He is profligate with his seed, casting it all over the place, unconcerned about waste, making no effort to increase his yield by sowing only in the best soil. God's seemingly careless generativity is confounding, and Jesus doesn't attempt to explain it. Rather, he gives a metaphoric accounting of how different sorts of people respond to the Word of God. This parable can seem deterministic--Salvation derives from the quality of the soil, over which the seed has no control.--unless you assume that the soil is not your environment but your heart.

I wonder what people make of the other agricultural parable in this chapter, verses 26-29. A man scatters seed, does nothing to cultivate it, but it grows and he harvests it. My New Oxford Annotated Bible contains this footnote: "The growth of God's kingdom in the world is beyond human understanding or control. Yet people may recognize its progress and play a part in it."

Fair enough. But it sure seems as though this second sower could be a heck of a lot more diligent. What perplexes me about this parable--and about the nature of grace, I guess--is that this man's diligence is not required. It is easy enough to say that this indicates that God doesn't need our help. Of course he doesn't. But to what extent does God want our help? Or, to put it another way, to what extent does our striving indicate commitment to the Gospel, and to what extent does it betray an arrogant belief that we can earn our salvation?

A curious move by George Carey

We've had a curious development in the Anglican Communion's struggle over the role of gay Christians in the Church right here in our diocese. At least, it seems that it has taken place here in our diocese. Although all I have to offer as evidence is that a certain post office box is here in our diocese. In the Chevy Chase section of DC, it seems.

Here is the story: Last week, members of the U. S. House of Bishops received a note from the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, asking them to fill out an attached survey. (You can see a copy of his note here, thanks tot Simon Sarmiento of Thinking Anglicans. If the type is too smal to read, drag your cursor to the lower right hand corner of the document and click on the document expander.)

The survey is from a group--although I can't swear that the collective noun is appropriate--called Lay Episcopalians for the Anglican Communion whose cover letter is here. (Thanks, again, to Simon.) In this letter the group(?) suggests that if members of the HoB got a do-over by secret ballot on the issues of +Gene Robinson and same-sex blessings, they might come to different decisions. The only contact info we have on the group, which has not publicly named any of its members, is a zip code (20015) in the Chevy Chase section of Washington, D. C., and a PO Box number.

The survey asks three questions: if you could vote in SECRET right NOW on +GR how would you vote? 2. if you could vote in SECRET NOW they are big on upper case letters) how would you vote on blessing same-sex unions? and 3. If push comes to shove (I am paraphrasing) would you side with the Episcopal Church if it were being kicked out of the Communion, or would you stick with the Communion and leave the Church?

I wish this were sinister because that would be good fun, but alas it is merely weird. Let's review: The former AoC, who has vigorously opposed the consecration of +Gene and the blessing of same sex unions, and whose knowledge of our church can charitably be described as partial, has apparently hooked up with a group whose membership is known to him, but which he does not feel he can disclose to members of the HoB. But he knows these people well enough to assure the HoB that they can be trusted with a confidential survey on sensitive matters. The comically leading survey (We think you have changed your mind: Have you changed your mind?) is to be mailed to the PO Box whence they will pass into the hands of a secretive "sponsor" at which point the results of the survey will be collated and released at an as-yet-unknown audience at an as yet unannounced time. And this will save the Anglican Communion! (And I think we all get ponies, but that is pure speculation.)

Three quick points:

1. Consecrating a bishop differs from a round of duffers' golf in that there are no mulligans.

2. The archbishop has done either the Diocese of Washington nor the people of one of our parishes, All Saints, Chevy Chase, any favors. He is in-residence at All Saints, part-time, when he is in this country, on and off, on a research fellowship with the Library of Congress. All Saints is one of the two Network-affiliated parishes in our diocese, and its bounds include much, if not all, of the 20015 zip code. If people become interested enough in finding out who the Lay Episcopalians for the Anglican Communion are, the handling of this mailing leaves you only two lines of inquiry: call George Carey, or call All Saints.

3. Tobias Haller, who made the following comment on Simon’s site has hit the nail on the head as he often does with numbing regularity:

“The most serious problem with this survey is that it is being sent to the entire House of Bishops. It is a common misunderstanding to think that the House of Bishops voted on the consent to the election of Bishop Robinson. They did not. According to our canons, only bishops with jurisdiction are eligible to consent to elections. This is done, apart from meetings of the General Convention, by sending a ballot to each diocesan bishop, which he or she is then free to return (as consent) or simply disregard. An absolute majority of "consents" is required for confirmation; so every consent "withheld" in this way is an effective "no."

I do not know who is behind this survey, but whoever put it together does not understand this fundamental feature of the polity of the Episcopal Church, concerning the election of its bishops.”

Mark 3

This chapter contains one quote and one incident that have been puzzling people for probably as long as the gospels have been read.

Although I must admit that the meaning of verses 28-30 seem clearer to me this time through. Here they are:

"Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin"--for they had said, "He has an unclean spirit."

The whole notion of unforgivable sin is a troubling one. It goes against one of the principal tenets of the faith as we have received it. What constitutes a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and why that is a more serious offense than blasphemy against the Father or Son, are intriguing questions. But my own sense here is that Jesus is saying it is eternally sinful to attribute the work of God to the devil.

This happens more than you might imagine, and churches are perhaps more guilty of this than other institutions because we are often eager to pronounce on what is godly. I've got two friends--lesbians in their 50s, who are raising two boys that they adopted from a Brazilian orphanage. Both of the kids have significant learning disabilities, and one of them has been working all of his young life to control his rage. But with my friends' love and their other resources, one of the kids is flourishing and the other is making slow progress toward maturity. I think of them every time I read this verse, because in my position I've been told over and over again that same-sex relationships are diabolical. In this instance, that seems to me a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

And speaking of families, verses 31-35 tell the story of Jesus being sought by his mother, brothers and sisters who, according to an earlier verse (21) have been told by the locals that "He has gone out of his mind." A footnote in The New Oxford Annotated Bible (New Revised Standard Version, for those of you keeping score at home) says perhaps Mary and his siblings were concerned for his safety as well as his sanity. Whatever the case, Jesus makes no effort to draw them close to him, and indeed says that within the family of God, his listeners are every bit as close to him as his biological family.

I guess all of this is clear enough in the text. But if you, like me, were raised Roman Catholic in a family with a real devotion to the Holy Family, and if you were taught to write JMJ (Jesus, Mary and Joseph) at the top of all of your papers in parochial school, the notion that families, by the nature of their bonds with one another, are not the essential building block of the Kingdom of God remains difficult to accept. (This is not to say that the family can't be the place in which you hear the Word of God and see if lived most powerfully. It certainly was for me.) The idea that Jesus' vocation (Vocation?) may have been a source of dissent within his family and a source of pain (even pre-Calvary) to his mother does not go down particularly easy either. (Especially if you grew up in an Irish household and would rather nibble off your own fingers than cause pain to your mother.)

And then there is this whole business about Mary being a Virgin and Jesus having brothers and sisters. The Biblical scholars that I read--and they are a pretty ecumenical lot--dismiss the argument that the words for brothers and sisters in this context coudl just as easily mean "cousins." So what does one do with that information viz. the Nicene Creed.

I don’t have an answer for that. I do, however, find these verses, and they aren’t unique to Mark, give us a much better sense of the cost of discipleship. It convulsed the life of Jesus, and the lives of those who tried to follow him. And I find that both consoling and, I use the word advisedly, threatening. Consoling because in times of conflict, these verses remind me that conflict comes with the territory that Christ calls us to cross. Threatening because I realize that I assume some judgment attaches to all the times I’ve chosen tranquility over fidelity.

Stop HR 4437

Our diocese is gearing up to oppose House Bill 4437, the odious immigration reform bill that has passed the House and now moves to the Senate. We are encouraging people to attend an interfaith prayer service and rally in oppostion to the bill on Tuesday, March 7 at 4 p. m. on the West Lawn of the Capitol. But we didn't have in mind anything as audacious as what Cardinal Roger Mahoney, the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles is advocating.

Here is a piece of the lead editorial in today's New York Times :

"It has been a long time since this country heard a call to organized lawbreaking on this big a scale. Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the nation's largest, urged parishioners on Ash Wednesday to devote the 40 days of Lent to fasting, prayer and reflection on the need for humane reform of immigration laws. If current efforts in Congress make it a felony to shield or offer support to illegal immigrants, Cardinal Mahony said, he will instruct his priests — and faithful lay Catholics — to defy the law.

The cardinal's focus of concern is H.R. 4437, a bill sponsored by James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin and Peter King of New York. This grab bag legislation, which was recently passed by the House, would expand the definition of "alien smuggling" in a way that could theoretically include working in a soup kitchen, driving a friend to a bus stop or caring for a neighbor's baby. Similar language appears in legislation being considered by the Senate this week.

The enormous influx of illegal immigrants and the lack of a coherent federal policy to handle it have prompted a jumble of responses by state and local governments, stirred the passions of the nativist fringe, and reinforced anxieties since 9/11. Cardinal Mahony's defiance adds a moral dimension to what has largely been a debate about politics and economics. 'As his disciples, we are called to attend to the last, littlest, lowest and least in society and in the church,' he said."

My baseball cap is off to the Cardinal. I hoped other church leaders will follow his lead.

Mark 2

For some reason I had never previously taken note of the first sentence of this chapter--"...it was reported that he was at home."--but this time through I am really struck by it. You don't picture Jesus "at home." Or at least I don't. If he isn't in public, he's alone at prayer. You don't think of him sitting around the house and doing the first century equivalent of reading the paper, having a cup of coffee, catching up on the mail, mowing the lawn. It is easier to picture him in a banquet hall with a cup of wine in his fist than it is to imagine him in a hammock or whatever it was he would have dropped into if he wanted to relax. What are the implications of a Jesus at rest, a domestic God?

Mark doesn't tell us because no sooner do we learn that Jesus is at home than he's got visitors. Tons of them, including one who comes in via a hole in the roof. The theme of this chapter is: giving offense. Jesus angers the religious establishment both by healing the parlytic and forgiving his sins. He angers them again by eating with the likes of Levi. Again by failing to insist that his disciples fast, and again by violating a strict interpretation of the Sabbath.

He does this, I think, as a way of establishing his authority over and against that of his critics. In doing so, it seems to me, he relies on a trump card: his success as a healer. His healings simultaneously win him an audience and establish his credibility. That is why I am persuaded that the healings stand up to even the harshest critical scrutinty. (That and the fact that Father John Meier, author of the monumental trilogy A Marginal Jew belives it too, and I tend to follow his lead in an ovine fashion.)

But a question arises explicitly in this chapter that was also hinted at in Chapter 1. What is the relationship between physical and spiritual healing in Jesus ministry? As I've got a bedtime story to read to my younger son, I am not gong to lay out what little I know about the first century understanding that illness was a punishment for sins. So I can't offer an entirely satsifying answer. But Jesus explicitly says that he is healing the paralytic man who was lowered through this roof "so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins." It is almost as though this great physical act of mercy wasn't quite worth performing simply so that the fellow could get up and walk.

I don't feel I've explored this issue with any real depth, but as I say, there is a bedtime story to be read. So I'd be delighted if one of you would deepen the discussion.

Ash Wednesday

In her sermon on Sunday, the Rev. Margaret Guenther urged parishioners of St. Columba's parish in D. C. to read the Gospel according to Mark as a Lenten observance. As I tend to weigh every enterprise by whether it will produce blog fodder, I thought: good idea. So, if you are game, join me for a 16-day read-along of my favorite Gospel.

One of the reasons I love Mark is that it is sudden, mysterious and doesn't stop to explain itself. There is no effort to seduce, only to inform. "This is what happened!" it exclaims. "Make of it what you will." For this reason, it feels like a more authentic eye witness account than do the other gospels. I am not saying it is more authentic. Nor am I saying that it is an eye witness account. But it feels that way because of its style.

Let's look at Chapter One. In the space of two double-columned pages (complete with copious footnotes in my New Oxford Annotated Bible we meet John; he baptizes Jesus; the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness where he is tempted; he returns, declares the Kingdom has come near; recruits the first disciples; preaches with authority; is recognized by an unclean spirit; casts the spirit out; heals Peter's mother-in-law; seeks solitude in which to pray; sets off on a preaching and healing tour of Galilee; heals a leper and becomes such a regional celebrity that he can't even go into towns.

Things happen; they happen fast, and there isn't much time to reflect on what is going on. But there is such narrative momentum, you don't mind because it is such an exhilerating ride.

Two things strike me, and I am sure neither of these is original.

One: the demons know Jesus. They call him by name. What's up with that? I can think of a few possible answers, most of them involving such extensive cosmological speculation that I instinctively distrust them. Is there some other world in which Jesus and the unclean spirits previously met? Is there some kind of dog-whistle type-communication going on all around us all the time that only those tuned into the divine-demonic frequency can pick up?

Two: Jesus insists on secrecy. He admonishes the people he heals and the spirits he casts out not to tell people about him. There seems to be a tension between proclaiming the Good News and giving evidence of the nature of the Kingdom and disclosing his true nature that I don't quite grasp.

Please chime in.

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